Dooley: Hard work puts UF in New York


Published: Friday, March 17, 2017 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 18, 2017 at 11:48 p.m.

ORLANDO — When Mike White finally came off the floor with a second NCAA Tournament win in his back pocket, he wanted to slap hands with everyone he saw.

Fans, players, photographers. Dazzlers.

Ahead of him, his players were celebrating with bear hugs around the necks of their buddies. Not only had they advanced out of a regional they were supposed to be out of on Thursday, they had embarrassed a team that is difficult to embarrass.

It wasn’t supposed to be this easy.

Not 65-39 easy.

But the notion that this was going to be a grinder of a game didn’t last long. There was only one team grinding Saturday night.

“I’m so proud of them but I’ve been proud of them all year,” White said.

The Gators played big boy defense against a team known for its defense and efficient offense against, well, a team known for its defense. As a result, Florida is in the Sweet 16, a place that looked like a distant light miles out to sea when last week started.

“Going into the postseason, we were in a tough place,” White said.

The postseason continues, thanks to a group of guys who didn’t let anything get them down and don’t care who scores the points.

It was Justin Leon and Devin Robinson on Saturday night, both recording double-doubles.

And it really was all about what happened in the latter part of the first half.

Florida’s 14-point lead at the half was surprising only because we weren’t sure either team could get to 14 at halftime. Both teams struggled in the early going, but it wasn’t just because of the other’s suffocating defense.

There were turnovers, bad shot selections and just flat misses on wide-open jumpers.

But then something happened.

On Thursday, the public address announcer forgot to introduce Justin Leon. He stood up with his palms turned up and shrugged. Often, he has been the forgotten man on this team and in this case, didn’t do anything memorable in UF’s win over East Tennessee State (three points, four rebounds in 19 minutes).

“I just went to the scorer’s table and told him a joke,” Leon said. “And I was like, ‘Where am I at?’ I was just joking. It really didn’t matter to me.”

Then came Saturday and suddenly Leon was trending high on Twitter.

He scored eight straight points, hitting a hook and a free throw, two more free throws and then a 3-pointer that got what had been a mildly-interested crowd rocking the arena.

Kevarrius Hayes finished off the half with a dunk and you started humming Frank Sinatra’s most famous song.

“It was going the way we needed it to go early,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett. “But they adjusted and we had some breakdowns.”

Leon’s amazing night got better at the start of the second half with two more 3s and he was three points shy of outscoring the Cavaliers all by his lonesome at one point. The last 3 capped a 21-0 run for UF and as well as the Gators played offensively, the most important number in that run was the zero.

The discipline they showed in this game slipped for a bit when Virginia scored two straight baskets later … to pull within 24.

White immediately called timeout to straighten out the problem.

This is how dominant Florida was and how unlikely it was for Virginia to make a miraculous comeback — White began taking the air out of the ball with 12 minutes left in the game.

And both coaches started pulling starters with four minutes to play.

At the TV timeout with 2:54 to go, White had a smirk on his face as he huddled with his coaches. For a guy who has worked his tail off — first to get this job and then to make it work — this night had to be extremely satisfying.

But it was really about something one of his assistants had said.

“I was wondering what Justin was doing on a play,” White said. “One of my assistants said, ‘Two years ago, he was trying to get to the junior college national championship game. Give him a break.’ ”

This has been a pretty good few days for the SEC coach of the year.

It’s been a very good year, no matter what happens in New York City.

All you had to do was watch how hard these guys played in every … single … game. They were flawed offensively, but there wasn’t a lack of effort. Ever.

“We may miss some shots and miss a switch or miss a communication,” White said. “But this group plays really hard. They play for each other. They play the right way.”

And it has been rewarded.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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